How to identify a rape victim: Best response practices

First responders and government officials can follow these best practices on how to respond to sexual assault victims


Providing tips on how to identify a victim of rape is not simple. Victims can be male, female, adults, adolescents or children. Victims can be black. white, Asian or Hispanic. Victims may be straight, gay, lesbian or transgender. A victim could be an athlete, differently-abled or mentally ill. A victim could be your father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend, co-worker or a stranger. Basically, a victim can be anyone.

I can, however, provide tips on what to do when someone reports they have been raped. Below are some common behaviors victims may exhibit, as well as the best ways to respond if — and when — someone says they have been raped or sexually assaulted.

Victims may exhibit some or none of the following responses.

Trauma & Victim Recall

To understand a victim’s response to sexual assault, it is important to first understand the effects trauma has, as well as the victim’s ability to recall information. When a person experiences a traumatic event the brain automatically goes into survival mode. When a person is experiencing threat or danger, the body has a primordial response.

During this response, the less critical body functions — including parts of the brain — are “turned off” or cease to function. The details of the traumatic experience are not integrated at the time of the threat, or dangerous experience, because the body is focused on survival while the parts of the brain responsible for processing memory, emotion and thinking are “turned off.”

During a sexual violence event, a victim may develop “tunnel vision.” This may impact the ability to recall details outside of the “tunnel.” Victims may experience delays in motor and cognitive skills, including a decreased ability to concentrate, and what some may consider irrational decision making. Their brains may not fully encode their experience, making immediate recall difficult, if not impossible.

The effects of trauma on recall, however, may only be temporary.

Before the first sleep period, a person may only be able to describe the general characteristics of the incident. But after the first sleep period, a person’s recall increases by 50-90%. A person’s ability to completely recall details will not occur until after the second sleep cycle. And in some cases, they may not ever be able to completely recall everything.

Common Victim Responses

Not all victims respond the same. The following common victim responses, and best practices for response, are not intended to be all-inclusive. These responses are frequently seen in adult victims of sexual assault; note that adults and children have very different responses.


Victims of sexual assault may be afraid for many reasons. In some instances, the fear is directly related to the circumstances surrounding their assault, such as the use of a weapon or location. Some victims are afraid of retaliation against them or their families by either the perpetrator, or an actor on their behalf.

Victims may be fearful of others finding out what happened to them and the perceived stigma that may be present. Other victims are fearful for cultural reasons. For example, in some cultures a victim of rape may be considered “unclean” or “bringing shame” to their family. Lastly, who the perpetrator is may be a source of fear. Most victims know their perpetrator and may be afraid of potential (future) contact they may be forced to have.

Best response practices:

  • It is important to identify the source of fear for the victim and identify any potential safety concerns they may have.
  • Consider doing an assessment of the victim’s home for safety if the crime occurred within their home. Offer guidance on obtaining an order of protection or possibly assist the victim with an alternative place to live.
  • Listen to what the victim is saying, and provide reassurance and resources to assist them in navigating through their fear. If victims feel safe, they are more likely to stay engaged in the criminal justice process.


Shock can be more than just a physiological response. Victims may struggle to believe that they were the victims of rape and/or that the person they knew (and likely trusted) was the one who raped them.

Best response practices:

  • Allow victims to process their experiences in their time.
  • Provide a safe space to express their disbelief and confusion.
  • Listen to what they are saying as it may provide information on how the perpetrator gained their trust.


Victims often blame themselves for what occurred. If under the influence of drugs or alcohol, victims may feel responsible for the event -- as though they deserve what happened because they were using drugs, consuming alcohol, in the wrong part of town, etc.

Best response practices:

  • Reassure the victim regardless of what they did that they are not responsible for the event.
  • Be clear that the only person responsible for rape is the person who committed the crime.

Shame and/or Embarrassment

Victims may be embarrassed or feel ashamed about the details of the assault and may leave information out during their initial disclosure. Things they may leave out include:

  • Involvement with drugs, alcohol or prostitution.
  • Relationship to the perpetrator.
  • The use of a weapon.
  • Anything that will make them look less like the stereotypical “real” rape victim.

This information is not left out for the purpose of lying, but as a method of self-protection. Victims want to be believed, and often feel if they share information regarding their participation in what may be perceived as “bad” activity it will cause the person they are telling (regardless of their professional discipline) to blame them (the victim).

Best response practices:

  • Explain to victims you are there to help them, and are not there to judge them for anything they may have been doing leading up to the assault.
  • If you are law enforcement, and it’s within your agency policy, reassure the victim you are not there to arrest them for any possible criminal behavior.
  • Ensure they understand your role is to investigate what happened to them.

It is important to gain the trust of the victim. Ensure victims understand you are there to help them, but need them to be honest about all of their activities so you can do a thorough investigation. Most behaviors such as drug use, alcohol and prostitution can be worked with as long as a victim does not lie.

An example of something to say to a victim is:

I have talked to a lot of people who have experienced what you have, and one thing a lot of them have in common is a fear of what I will think about them or something they’ve done. Sometimes they will leave information out because they think it makes them look bad. I do a very thorough investigation, and I almost always find out what that thing was. And even though I understand why it was left out, it looks -- to the prosecutor -- like a lie, and that makes it very difficult to move forward with the case. But I’ll make a deal with you -- I’ll be completely honest with you and I need you to be completely honest with me.’

Need for understanding

Victims will often go over the event repeatedly in their mind or out loud to a trusted person in an effort to understand. By analyzing their behavior, victims may believe they can explain what happened or identify ways they can avoid similar situations and thus avoid being victimized in the future.

Best response practices:

  • Allow victims to process their experiences.
  • Explain to them they may never understand why the perpetrator did what they did.

Life goes on

It is important to remember that victims’ lives do not stop after being sexually assaulted, or after making disclosures. If they reported to law enforcement, victims may encounter difficulty keeping appointments or responding to law enforcement messages due to work responsibilities, medical appointments, lack of transportation or lack of daycare. Even if they have reported to law enforcement, or gone to the hospital for a forensic examination, victims may choose not to tell their employer, friends and/or family members what occurred. As a result they may have difficulty taking time off of work, arranging childcare and/or obtaining transportation.

Law enforcement should consider these things if a victim misses, cancels or changes an appointment before assuming they do not want to cooperate with the investigation.

Best response practices:

  • Use a victim-centered approach and talk to the victim about what they need to stay engaged in the investigation.
  • Ask if it would be helpful to meet them at their residence, at a location near their work on their lunch hour (ensure the location will allow for privacy), at a park while their children play or possibly on the weekend.
  • Reassure the victim you will not discuss their case with their family, friends, co-workers, employer or spouse without their consent. A victim’s privacy should be respected at all times.

Counterintuitive behavior

Some victims may be very calm, minimize or deny the impact the sexual assault had on them. Victims are eager to move on with their lives. Some victims will withdraw from the criminal justice process. This should NOT be seen as an indication that a victim is not being truthful about what occurred.

Best response practices:

  • If possible, provide them with a brochure or other handout that explains any policy your agency has regarding the disposal of evidence when a case closes, how they can reopen the case if they change their mind and local resources such as the rape crisis center or other counseling services.
  • Do not pressure victims to stay engaged.

Self-destructive and/or risky behavior

Rape is about power and control. Victims lose both when they are raped. As a method of coping and/or regaining their power and control over their own lives, victims will often engage in high risk behaviors such as alcohol use, drug use and promiscuity. Victims may continue to go to parties and/or may become sexually promiscuous as a method of exerting control over their own bodies.

As a result, the victim may create vulnerability which puts them at a higher risk for being victimized again. This may cause problems with their family members, friends and support people who don’t understand the victim’s actions or behaviors.

Best response practices:

  • When these behaviors are observed it is important not to respond in a judgmental or demeaning way.
  • Talk to victims about accessing community resources for counseling to help them learn healthier coping mechanisms and boundaries for their own bodies.

Start by Believing

The most important thing you can do if someone tells you they have been raped or sexually assaulted is to start by believing them.

Best response practices:

Catherine Johnson is a former detective and subject matter expert with experience in developing and implementing training on violence against women for law enforcement, military, and other multi-disciplinary partners both locally and internationally. She also serves as Secretary on the Board of Directors for End Violence Against Women International. For more information and resources, visit the EVAWI resource library.